Fourth Quarter 2017 Market Review

Look Both Ways as You Cross the Street?

Stocks rose for a fourth straight quarter with a gain of 6.34%. Bonds, including treasuries, were up 0.39% even with the Federal Reserve hiking interest rates a quarter of a point in December. Commodities (as measured by the Bloomberg Commodity Index) again had a strong fourth quarter led by energy and metals. And Bitcoin…….well, despite its unprecedented increase in value, we still consider Bitcoin to be a medium of exchange and better suited as a store of wealth versus a growth or income-producing investment.

2018 Outlook:

As you recall, one of the key variables we identified as impacting the market was meaningful tax reform and, while far from perfect in our view, it is hard to argue that the reforms are not meaningful.

For those of us old enough to remember, the tax reforms of the 1980’s impacted the economy positively through deep cuts to personal tax rates. This bill delivers only modest personal relief for most of us who pay taxes, but it does create a much more favorable business climate than we’ve seen in many years through significant corporate tax reduction.

While we may see only modest gains in our personal tax bills, we will all certainly benefit from any gains in real economic growth that may be spurred on by these tax changes. If demand exceeds capacity, as it often does when economic growth is robust, that will fuel the need for capital investment in new and expanded factories and facilities across the nation. That expansion could push up the demand for labor and increase hiring and wages.

Economic growth should translate into increased revenue which, if companies hold their costs in line, would result in enhanced rates of earnings growth. Faster growth would have a positive impact on one of the fundamental components of stock pricing.

Interest rates will still be favorable for borrowers and near historic lows even if the Federal Reserve proceeds with its three projected interest rate hikes in 2018.

Couple all that with an already improved business regulatory climate and you have a constructive environment for continued market gains in 2018.

But while these catalysts typically signal that stocks have more room to run, there are still risks worth watching and we do not expect 2018 gains to match those of 2017.

The first question pertains to the effect of the tax cuts on the market from this point. We have heard opinions from “experts” that the reforms have been fully priced into the market or not priced in at all. We believe the truth is somewhere in between those two extremes, but there is a strong possibility that prices have gotten at least a little ahead of fundamentals. So, it would not be surprising if the market pauses until earnings announcements enable investors to better calibrate how “cheap” or “expensive” stocks really are.

Another common assumption is that major companies will repatriate the billions of dollars currently held overseas and use that capital for domestic investment, acquisitions, and share buy backs. While we do believe that this will occur to some degree, we also think that at least some of the repatriated cash will be applied to debt reduction.

Reducing debt would strengthen balance sheets which is good in the long run but it doesn’t necessarily drive increases in stock prices in the short run. Since these companies will determine what is in their own best interest, it is impossible to draw any macro conclusions about the impact of repatriation. We would prefer to err on the side of caution.

The risk of some sort of military conflict with North Korea still exists. The missile tests continue, bomb tests continue, military drills continue, and rhetorical spats continue. We do not see a peaceful path to eliminating the nuclear threat presented by this regime. Any resolution that results in a nuclear exchange occurring anywhere in the world will certainly rock the markets for some period; how significantly and for how long is open to debate.

International Economies – China

China’s growth rate has taken a hit this year which makes sense since you can only build so many empty cities. Unfortunately, GDP calculations in China have long been suspect making it difficult to determine the soundness of the Chinese economy. For instance, if the government spends money to have a hole dug, then spends more money to have that whole filled, economic measurements will show GDP growth even though there was no need to have the hole dug in the first place. Add to this slowing growth extreme debt levels, capital flight, corruption, and pollution, and you have a large economic house of cards that may become impossible to stabilize. The Chinese economy is now so large that even a moderate slowdown will negatively impact economic growth in much of the world with a likely knock-on effect for stock prices.

The Fed

With all major economies expanding, there is a possibility that central banks begin raising rates overly aggressively; particularly our own Fed as well as the European Central Bank.

We know that the Fed has already started to unwind their balance sheet and is now gradually ratcheting down the quantitative easing by $20 billion per month in January and further to $50 billion by October. As the Fed’s appetite wanes, the Treasury will need to issue more debt into the market, putting upward pressure on rates. We also know that the Fed wants to raise interest rates at the short end of the maturity spectrum sooner rather than later in preparation for the economic downturn that will inevitably occur at some unknown point in the future.

Meanwhile, the ECB announced in October that it would cut its quantitative easing to €30 billion a month in January 2018. That’s a 50% cut from the prior level of stimulus. At least some portion of that has found its way to the stock market over the last decade.

Couple these actions with the Fed’s projected interest rate hikes and it’s clear there is a risk that the Fed might “hit the brakes” too hard and too fast and adversely impact economic growth. If there’s anything that we have learned over the years, it’s that monetary policy is just as much art as it is science.

Yet another reason to believe that 2018 will not be like 2017 is that 2018 is an election year. As we have seen in the past, elections can bring market volatility. If the special elections last year are any kind of an indicator, we expect the 2018 political scene to be as contentious and over the top as anything we have seen in our lifetimes. The markets don’t like uncertainty, so we could very well see a bumpy ride starting sometime during the run-up to the elections.

When we look at all these factors we do not believe that we should be taking a defensive posture with our investments, but at the same time it would be a mistake to be complacent. Timing the markets is a dangerous game; in this environment, it makes more sense for investors to focus on making sure they are well-positioned to pursue personal goals. Our risk-based allocations are constructed using the historic performance of the component strategies in varying market conditions as a guide and, in our opinion, represent a rational approach to dealing with market uncertainty.